Big 12 expansion has dominated, or at least been omnipresent, in the realm of college football discussion since the conference originally realigned early this decade. By replacing four departing members with just two new schools, thus making itself the smallest power conference in the country, the Big 12 has been through the ringer when it comes to arguments over the importance of a conference title game, whether or not twelve or more teams are needed and other realignment-oriented topics.
With the announcement on June 3 that the Big 12 would bring back their football championship game in 2017, a lot of these discussions ceased, but naturally new ones sprung up and a new round of confusion for fans, spectators and media members alike came into focus.
With the talk of a Big 12 cable network breaking down and conference expansion looking increasingly less likely, this new round of questions revolves around the upcoming divisional realignment of the conference.
Simply by adding a conference title game while still playing a nine-game, round-robin schedule, the Big 12 puts itself at a disadvantage when compared to other Power Five conferences, since its title game guarantees a rematch of a match-up from the regular season, regardless of how the divisions are aligned. With this in mind, it’s vital for the conference to set its divisions up in a way that creates the best title game match-up that is theoretically possible on a yearly basis.
In the conference’s original setup, there was an obvious disparity between overall quality of teams between the South and North divisions. In the first 15 years of the Big 12’s existence, the South division won 11 conference titles, with the South winning just four, none of which came after 2003. While the South featured the likes of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and all four Texas schools that resided in the conference at the time, Nebraska regularly dominated the North, a division filled with teams like Kansas, Iowa State, Colorado, etc. The Big 12 is faced with a similar dilemma as they try to find the perfect blend of perennial powers and basement dwellers.
Geographically-speaking, it’s a no-win situation for the conference, as there will be an obvious divide in quality regardless of whether division splits the league north-south or east-west. A pure split of teams into north and south divisions would place Oklahoma with four Texas schools again in the south, while Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State, Oklahoma State and West Virginia would be left in the north. Similarly to the pre-2011 alignment of the conference, this conference design heavily favors the south, at least on paper. Dividing the conference into east and west would organize the teams in the exact same way, leaving the conference without much in the way of options if they want to aim for a split based on geography.
If geography is not used to determine the new Big 12 divisions, then the conference may be left to use arbitrary measures to split its teams, which could result in arbitrary, possibly meaningless names for the division. This sort of tactic was not well-received whatsoever when employed by the Big Ten.
Despite all of the potential shortcomings and challenges that the Big 12 now faces with the addition of a conference championship game, the influx of cash it will bring to each member university makes it hard to deny that it’s worthwhile for every program. With estimates that the game could bring in as much as $30 million to the conference, it’s obvious that this is beneficial for every team, from annually dominant Oklahoma to lowly Kansas. Even with this windfall of cash, however, realigning the conference with just ten teams doesn’t necessarily make football sense.
Money drives college football and money is the driving force behind the addition of a Big 12 Conference Championship Game. But with the looming difficulty of a wide gap in quality between teams in the conference’s two new divisions, regardless of alignment, in addition to the unavoidable rematch in the title game, the Big 12 is not necessarily better off when it comes to football on a national scale. Things may seem rosy now for the Big 12, especially with piles of cash staring the conference down in the near future, but things may seem a bit more bleak when 8-1 Oklahoma, vying for a spot in the College Football Playoff, squares off in the conference championship game against a 5-4 West Virginia team that they already beat earlier in the season.